Welcome to Fuzzyland: The Difference Between Language and Dialect
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, palms sweaty, breathing heavily as if coming up from a drowning nightmare, asking yourself: “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?!”
No? Just me?
In this post, I’ll finally share the answer to that incredibly pressing question.
Let’s dive deep into the three differences between a language and a dialect, and learn how a dialect differs from an accent.
- 1. A Language Has a Country, While a Dialect Is Region-specific
- 2. A Language Has Standard Written Forms, While a Dialect Exists Largely in Oral Form
- 3. A Language Is Qualitatively Different from a Dialect
- What’s the Difference Between a Dialect and an Accent?
The Difference Between Language and Dialect
I’m just going to give it to you straight: there’s no objective difference between “language” and “dialect.” They’re both systems of communication employed by a significant number of native speakers.
Although I’m going to give you three “differences” here, they’re really just helpful ways of thinking about the two.
It’s very tempting to try to go for clear-cut comparisons. But in linguistics, some concepts aren’t as straightforward as we want them to be.
Regardless of which language you’re learning, it’s important to be familiar with its various accents and related dialects. Even if you choose to specialize in one (such as Taiwanese Mandarin instead of Mainland Mandarin), being accustomed to others prepares you for conversations with native speakers from different parts of the world and allows you to enjoy media in your target language regardless of its region of origin.
You can get a lot of context and cultural/linguistic information for your target language by watching the media its native speakers produce. This can take the form of whatever interests you, from movies and TV shows to YouTube videos.
You can even combine the context of authentic media with a language learning session on the FluentU program. FluentU has videos created by and for native speakers, like movie clips, music videos and plenty more—combined with learning features like in-subtitle definitions, flashcards and quizzes.
However you do it, look for opportunities to hear different languages, dialects and accents.
Now that you know the importance of familiarizing yourself with the various dialects and accents of your target language, let’s take a closer look into the supposed differences between languages and dialects.
1. A Language Has a Country, While a Dialect Is Region-specific
“Language” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the words, their pronunciation and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.”
“Dialect” on the other hand is defined as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.”
You might have noticed that there’s not much daylight between these definitions. But it’s always pointed out that languages are “national,” while dialects are said to be “regional” and are often spoken by a fewer number of people.
Each country has at least one official language that’s used in official documents and government activities (like crafting laws and ordinances).
But while most people stop there, we can go a bit deeper (read: more linguistically accurate).
A dialect becomes a “language” by decree or declaration. The state gives special status to a spoken system as an “official language.” In other words, a language is considered a “language” because it’s been endorsed by the state.
Linguist Max Weinreich once said, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” And he was right.
For example, when the Philippines was choosing one of its eight major dialects to be the official language, it was no accident that “Tagalog” won out. Even though the majority of the country at the time could scarcely speak Tagalog/Filipino, this didn’t stop the country leaders at the capital (who spoke fluent Tagalog) from adopting it as the national language.
Because “languages” are really dialects, there are many situations where people who are said to speak two different languages can understand each other perfectly. When a language or dialect is so similar to another, they’re called “mutually intelligible.”
Take the mutual intelligibility of the official languages of Denmark, Sweden and Norway for example.
Here’s a standard story setup: A Danish, Swedish and Norwegian walk into a bar…
…they talk normally.
No joke there.
Did you know that these Scandinavian countries can talk to each other without the use of interpreters?
Drunk or not, they understand each other. So while officially, they’re speaking three different languages (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian), it can be argued that they’re really using three related dialects that probably descended from a common mother tongue.
2. A Language Has Standard Written Forms, While a Dialect Exists Largely in Oral Form
Languages often have standard grammar rules and abundant supplies of literature. They exist not only as spoken traditions but also as written records.
Dialects, on the other hand, are usually spoken more than written. And if they’re written, it’s usually not in official or national documents.
That distinction is fair, but again, it only does half the job.
While a supply of already-available literature is certainly a criterion for choosing an “official language,” it also works the other way around.
Declaring a dialect to be an official language is self-perpetuating, encouraging writers to create works in the language. Because the state endorsed “X language” as the official language, all of its official affairs will be written in it.
All edicts, memos and even the price of carrots will be written in “X language.” Great supply of records and literature often come after a language has been officially adopted.
And because you now have many written records of “X language,” it becomes more amenable to standardization. Users of the language “X” can now begin their discussions on the rules of grammar because the written form is more malleable than sounds produced by oral recitation.
This ultimately makes “X” seem more “evolved” than other dialects. But we should never forget the fact that “X,” in the first place, might have been chosen as an official language because of a quirk of history, the luck of a draw or some flimsy reason.
3. A Language Is Qualitatively Different from a Dialect
Still, there are others who claim that languages are just inherently more “elegant” and “sophisticated” than dialects.
If one judges this sophistication by the evolved difficulty or complexity of the language, then Archi—a dialect spoken in a mountain region of Russia—would make your French homework look like a chew toy.
Archi has a great number of phonemes, a grueling morphology and conjugation forms where a single verb root can produce around 1,502,839 forms.
If, on the other hand, you’d like to argue that the “elegance” of a language lies in its simplicity, then you’d be hard-pressed to defend the adoption of difficult languages like Mandarin Chinese, Hungarian or Thai for everyday use.
For example, Chinese has over 50,000 characters (but only 5,000-7,000 are needed to read a newspaper.) It’s also a tonal language. This means a single syllable like “ma,” depending on how you pronounce it, can either mean “mother” or “horse.” (Actually, there are four ways of pronouncing every syllable and “ma” can also mean “rough” or “scold.”)
So, who’s really to say what makes a beautiful language or not? And let’s not forget that there are dialects just as worthy as recognized languages.
At first glance, a language might have inherent merits that warrant its status over dialects, but as linguists looked closer into the issue, the more similar the two became.
It’s like “languages” arrived at a social gathering all tuxedoed and spiffed up, wearing the most expensive perfume, while “dialects” came to the ball with just their khakis and espadrille.
On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different.
But then the music started.
Toes started tapping, heads started nodding and all hell broke loose. Both “languages” and “dialects” danced as silly as Tom Cruise in the movie “Risky Business.”
What’s the Difference Between a Dialect and an Accent?
As a bonus, you might like to know the difference between a dialect and an accent.
Many confuse the two and often use them interchangeably. The good news is, the difference is a lot clearer here.
An accent is a subset of a dialect.
While dialects cover all aspects of the language—grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation—an accent is concerned with just the third part.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an accent is “a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region.”
Accents are interesting studies because they organize speakers into their respective geographies. Words and sentences that look the same might come out very differently when spoken by people from two different regions.
With English alone, you already have so many drawls and notes. The major English accents include British, Irish, Scottish, American and Australian.
Each of these, in turn, have their own regional variants. The American accents, for example, are Deep Southern, Texan, New York, Boston, California and many more.
In England, those living in the North and South may be speaking the same language and using the same spelling, but those words sound considerably different.
Depending on where a speaker is located, the “R” in “bar” may be heard very clearly or not at all. The word “bath” may sound like the “A” in “cat” or the “A” in “father.”
The interesting thing is that most speakers claim their accent is the “correct” way of pronouncing words. That’s how we humans are.
While one’s accent may have some social, economic or geopolitical ramifications, all accents are equal.
They’re all valid and correct.
And they all sound beautiful.
So you now know that there’s no black-and-white difference between languages and dialects. You also know that an accent is a subset of a dialect. Now, you’re fully equipped to explain the difference to people still in the dark and maybe even join the discussions of experienced linguists!